North America is home to approximately 250 species of tortoises and turtles, both freshwater and sea turtles, ranging from the three-inch-long bog turtle to the seven-foot-long leatherback sea turtle. Turtles belong to the family reptilian, and like all reptiles, are cold-blooded and depend on outside sources of heat to regulate their body temperature. Turtles have protective shells, scaly skin, good eyesight and hearing, and an excellent sense of smell. Depending on the environment turtles lives in, they will have special characteristics that help them survive, including claws for digging and webbed feet for swimming.
Massachusetts is home to sixteen species of turtles: eleven freshwater turtles and five sea turtles. Unfortunately, the majority of these species are in danger of disappearing and are listed as ”threatened,” “endangered,” or “of special concern” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and/or MassWildlife (Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife). In Massachusetts, six out of the eleven freshwater turtles are listed as threatened, endangered, or of special concern; and all five sea turtles are listed as either threatened or endangered. There are only three turtle species in Massachusetts whose populations are not dangerously low: the snapping turtle, eastern musk turtle, and the painted turtle. Visit MassWildlife’s website for more information on “endangered,” “threatened,” or “of special concern” animals and plants in Massachusetts.
Sea turtles live in the ocean and eat a variety of foods, ranging from jellyfish to crabs to seaweed. Freshwater turtles live in a variety of places, including ponds, streams, wetlands, marshy meadows, bogs and wet woodlands, and eat various types of insects, frogs, fish and carrion.
Whether a turtle lives in the ocean, pond, or marshy meadow, all turtles lay their eggs on land. Depending on the species, the female will lay anywhere between 4 eggs (wood turtle, lives in fresh water) to almost 100 eggs (leatherback, lives in saltwater). The female digs a nest, lays her eggs, covers them and then leaves them to incubate on their own. The temperature of the sand/soil around the eggs plays the key role in determining the sex of the incubating eggs. Cooler temperatures produce males and warmer temperatures produce females. A high egg and juvenile mortality rate, along with human-related threats, including habitat destruction, water pollution, netting and commercial pet trade, have caused the endangerment of many turtle species.
POSSIBLE CONFLICTS & SOLUTIONS
Turtles are not high-conflict animals and since most species found in Massachusetts are in danger of extinction, we should do whatever we can to help their species recover.
Most turtles require multiple habitats to fulfill all of their survival needs – a unique habitat is needed for breeding, for nesting, and for feeding. In order to access all of these habitats, turtles often need to cross roads. If you see turtles trying to cross a road, using common sense and street smarts, you can help them reach the other side safely by carefully picking them up with a shovel, carrying them close to the ground to the other side of the road, and placing them down gently. Remember to place turtles down on the side of the road to which the turtles were heading. If you put turtles down on the side of the road from which they came, the turtles will re-enter the road to get to the other side.
If you see an injured turtle in the road, there are two things to consider: the turtle shell may be able to be repaired in an effort to save the turtle and/or the turtle may have eggs inside of her that may have a chance of survival. Both of these possibilities require immediate veterinary attention. Safely and carefully move the turtle from the road to a transport vehicle with a shovel or cardboard box and bring the injured turtle to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. Please call them first to make sure that they treat turtles.
PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERNS
Salmonellosis (sal-mohn-el-OH-sis) is a bacterial disease caused by the bacterium Salmonella. Salmonellosis is associated with reptiles, including lizards, snakes, turtles, and tortoises. For information regarding turtles and salmonella see the following websites:
Center for Disease Control (CDC) factsheet on diseases from reptiles.
Massachusetts Department of Public’s fact sheet on salmonellosis from reptiles.
MSPCA TURTLE FACT SHEET pdf